The sexting scare

Though no ‘epidemic,’ it raises big issues for parents and the law


The sexting scareIn January, six teenagers in Greensburg, Penn.—three girls and three boys all under the age of 18—were charged with child pornography for sending and receiving nude pictures of themselves via cellphone after the images were discovered by a high school teacher. Within weeks, teenage “sexting,” to use the catchy coinage, had become a seeming epidemic in the U.S., with a flurry of criminal charges, ranging from possession of child pornography to the lesser felony of obscenity, being laid in more than a dozen states.

With the concerned clucking that inevitably attends coverage of teenage sexuality, the U.S media—from Newsweek to Katie Couric—was all over it. Fox News called sexting “the new craze all over the country among 11- to 17-year-old adolescents.” The New York Post included “evidence” in the form of photos of scantily clad girls.

Yet the statistical proof of a sexting epidemic is scant: one lone survey sponsored by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com, which reported that 22 per cent of girls and 18 per cent of boys have electronically sent or posted nude or semi-nude images, even though 75 per cent knew it could have serious negative consequences.

That kids use what they believe is the private domain of their cellphones to text racy pictures is hardly surprising. What U.S. law enforcement views as pornography, teenagers see as high-tech flirting, oblivious to its dangerous consequences. Facebook and MySpace are filled with groups like “I’ve Sent Naked Pictures of Myself Over the Phone.” Nor is it shocking that a teenager who receives a naked image is tempted to share it—which is where the risk begins.

“These kinds of images are so ubiquitous, teens don’t see them as shocking,” says M. Gigi Durham, author of The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It. “They see them as an acceptable way of representing themselves.”

Sexting is certainly a reminder of how mysteriously porous electronic communication can be. Teenagers’ casual willingness to provide explicit images of themselves only heightens the risk. A 14-year-old Florida boy charged this week with transmitting pornography after he sent a photo of his genitalia to a female classmate explained he did it because he was “bored.”

The discussion has yet to migrate north of the border, where police say sexting isn’t on their radar. “We expect to see it, but we haven’t seen it,” says Det.-Const. Dana Boyko of the Toronto Police Service’s sex crimes unit, child exploitation section. Boyko regularly speaks to teenagers in Grades 7 to 12 and recently asked them about sexting. “They’d heard of it,” she says. “But the general view was that it had been hyped by the media, like it’s the new thing to worry about—sharks, killer bees, sexting.”

Obviously, teenagers might be reluctant to tell a cop they’re sending or receiving naked self-portraits. Yet an informal poll of nine teenagers ranging in age from 13 to 18 yields similar findings. One 16-year-old girl says she’s never heard the term, though she didn’t doubt it happens. “But no girls I know would do it,” she says. Another girl expressed frustration with the focus it’s received: “I’m really tired about stories that make all teenage girls look like sluts,” she says.

In Canada, it’s not illegal for two teenagers under the age of 18 to carry naked photographs of one another, provided it’s for private viewing only. “The Supreme Court says that minors can possess sexual images of themselves and others in consensual activity, but when it’s distributed, it becomes child pornography,” explains Toronto criminal lawyer Frank Addario. “The bright line between harmless and criminal,” he says, “is whether the photo depicts the nakedness for a sexual purpose. If you have an image of a naked teen zipping around the Internet, a police officer somewhere is going to see it and lay a charge.” And that charge, he says, would be against the minor who distributed it, not the minor who’d created the photograph.

Boyko says her colleagues have debated how they’d handle a sexting complaint, which raises thorny questions: “Do we really want to charge a child for distribution or possession of child porn?” she asks. “We’d have to look at the circumstances, to see if the situation was abusive. In some cases it might be charges had to be laid, in others that it’s just a lesson.” Teaching a lesson is what U.S. authorities are trying to do, though charging a child as a sexual offender is a harsh remedy with lifelong implications.

Durham believes the conversation about sexting is an important one, even though she questions whether it’s as common as reports suggest. The media focus is useful, she says: “It’s raising interesting legal questions about how, as a society, we should deal with the impacts of new technologies on our lives, and on kids’ lives in particular.”


The sexting scare

  1. Young people are showing each other their naked bodies! When did that ever happen before?

  2. A simple advisory e-massage from an outsider altered their behaviors by about 40 percent, if so, how effective their parents’ close attention and care will be ?

  3. As usual, the US justice system is taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Being categorized as a sex offender in the States can land young people in a nightmarish situation, making it impossible to live and work. Teenagers have had their lives ruined as the result of underage but consensual sex. This “sexting” is often in the same category.

  4. What did they think would happen if they gave a bunch of hormonal teens a compact camera?

  5. I am sorry but these teens are showing normal sexual exploration, unfortunately when we did it pre 21st century , there wasn’t a permanent record or an easy distribution method. We did the same thing in sleep overs, or down in the rec room or some other quiet and hidden place. What parents today have to realize is that if your going to give your teenager or preteen a camera phone, then you must explain to your child what is appropriate and any photo they take of themselves can easily be passed around by one of their immature friends. Not being ashamed of their bodies is not a bad thing, unfortunately there are those in our community who think that what their sick sense of self should be applied to society as a whole. It is this attitude that produces pedophiles and those that would exploit children. We push sexuality at children through MTV and even children’s programming, but yet are afraid to teach them about their sexuality in schools because these busy bodies insist it is the parents right to teach this, unfortunately many parents aren’t equipped to teach their children or they wait until it is too late. I have seen second graders on there way to school in outfits more appropriate to a hooker than a young girl in the second grade. The parents let them out the door dressed like this and the schools for allowing such attire. Before we could ruin a reputation by word of mouth, now the Internet can do it in an instant, young people are going to experiment with sex, what they need to taught is the permanence of a photo and even if they are sharing with a boyfriend or girlfriend, the possibility is that the picture will go farther than the intended audience.

  6. Putting a cell phone with a camera into the hands of a majority of teenagers and expecting they will NOT be used to take, at a minimum, candid snaps – at a maximum, explicit sexual photos/movies – is beyond naive. It’s wilful blindness.

    Given that relationships at that age are intrinsically temporary, and given that breakups at that age are frequently high drama affairs, the expectation that a portion (at least) of such photos will be distributed for spite – if for no other reason – is pretty much a certainty.

    So what do we do about it? Here’s a thought: how about we do nothing about it at all. The world will not come to an end. The sun will come up – it will be bright, it will get dark, people will sleep. Then it will happen all over again the next day, too. In the end, not a big deal. If they were 18, not a crime. But one of them was seventeen so we should send somebody to jail? Come on.

    This is the problem with treating adolescents – who are legally permitted to consent to having sex – as “children”. They aren’t children under the law and have never been treated in that fashion in Canada. They are not children; they are adolescents. There is a significant difference between the two.

    Would I be seething about it if it was my daughter? Sure I would. Would I be hopping mad about it if it was *your daughter*? To be honest, no.

    The article quotes the SCC decision in R. v. Sharpe as authority for drawing a bright line between two teens consenting to take sexual photographs of themselves and their committing a crime by showing those photos to somebody else. R. v. Sharpe was not a case that had such facts. Moreover, R. v. Sharpe was decided before cell phone cameras had become ubiquitous amongst teens. Like all decisions of our courts made in the absence of real facts and circumstances, it’s obiter dicta and applies only to the facts which were before the court at the time.

    Let’s wait until the facts are actually before a court before we rev up the engine of the Crown and use R v. Sharpe to saddle some ill-advised, broken-hearted teen with a criminal record. We’ve got bigger problems in our society to deal with, don’t we?

  7. I think the fact that every Tom, Dick and Jane has a cell phone is ridiculous. Seeing kids walk around with their faces so tuned to texting, they can’t even be considerate enough to put it away. As a parent, my child IF I ever chose to give her a cell phone, would only have numbers programmed to reach me if she needed to. Otherwise, she could communicate with her friends the old fashion way…actually talking to them face to face, calling them on the phone at home, or using a pay phone.
    I think the art of actually TALKING to people is going by the wayside and we are raising a generation of social kids who will have no idea how to actual SPEAK to people.
    This whole sexting thing was just bound to be the next step when you give kids something/tools they are not equipped and mature enough to handle.

    • PThomas has his/her head in the sand if they think that just programming his/her own numbers into the kids phone will prevent them from calling their friends. PThomas should go out and see how many pay phones still exist (pay phones loose money for phone companies since the proliferation of cell phones).

      The responsible thing would be to discuss the proper use of a cell phone, the proper etiquette. Teach them when it is appropriate to use the phone, what conversations and when should be held. Explain that the pictures taken will last forever. And that anything sent via test, consider it never to be private.

      You state that it was bound to happen, sexting. I say to you, make kids aware of the tools that they have. Discuss, yes, actually speak, to your kids. You cannot control everything they do, but if you have explained it to them, then there is the possibility that they will think before acting. By us acting as responsible adults, we can raise responsible children.

    • Here’s a radical idea, DONT GET THEM ONE. PERIOD. Has the whole world lost it’s mind? We somehow managed withour cell phones 20 years ago. If a teenager wants a cell phone or car let them pay for it themselves. Let them get a job. It’s surprising how work and resposibilities turns teens into responsible young, well adjusted adults. Cell Phone companies now want brainless parents to buy cell phones for toodlers. Should everyone do that as well? Yes, let’s keep indulging our children but don’t be surprised when they are 28 and still living in your basement. That’s providing they haven’t already killed themselves in the car you gave them. Cheers.

  8. As the parent of a soon-to-be-three-year old who will never know or care about the primitive world I grew up in (I’m 42), I’m afraid I’m going to have to side with PThomas on the insidiousness of cell phones, especially for kids. Is there any real reason for absolutely EVERYONE to be carrying one around? I don’t even hear much talk about limiting kids’ use of them lately. If I could somehow get away with it, I’d pitch mine to the curb as well. They’re time vampires and along with iPods and computers, young people have access to information and tools we couldn’t have conceived of, yet we hold them to romanticized notions of standards that were out of date in 1979. I’m still struggling with how to use technology properly and for productive things, how can we expect 14 year olds to do the right thing with zero guidance?

    Raise your kids properly in the first place. Teach them respect, morality and values. Above all, spend time with them, and after the blip of the teenage years, they will come back to those values.

    • Well said, and by the way I ditched my cell phone that I was forced into getting by a previous empoyer. I don’t remotely miss the agravation one bit. I was tired of paying the insane monthly cost. Fighting over charges for texting, ring tones I never asked for. Soon as the contract was up(3 years in good ole Canada by the way, 2 in the states) I dumped it. Cell phone companies have everyone mesmerized into thinking phone bills for hundreds of dollars are normal. This service is insanely overpriced. Time for kids and their parents to grow up!

  9. I don’t know if it’s polite to ask, but how old are you people anyways?

    ‘Kids these days’ have a very different relationship to technology than their parents. I have never known this mythical time without cell phones. It’s a new way of communicating and to call it insidious or consider it lesser in value than the old fashioned methods simply because it’s different than that with which you accustomed?

    Every generation complains about the new generation and how they are destroying values,ruining the art of communication, diminishing family values etc. But if you look at the complaints raised, they are always the same problems, but with a new medium.

    • Hear hear!

      Leads me to believe these so called ‘family values’ were fictional all along.

      • how could they not be fictional? we’ve been declaring the death of them for ages but they still won’t go away.

        although, to be fair to the subject of the article, hypersexualization of girls has nothing to do with these elusive “family values” and everything to do with economics. don’t people know that money makes the world go round?

    • Em – you bring up a valid point about each generation complaining about the one that follows in its footsteps. The relationship that kids have with technology nowadays is certainly different. I think my point is that we are all so fearful of missing something or being left behind in someway that we are propelling this NEED for technology in every medium imaginable. When people can’t go minutes without checking their technological device for messages, status updates etc…I say that is a problem. This just buys into the marketing of big companies who are selling these gadgets (and charging an arm, leg and your first born child for contracts!…lol about the last part!)

      • The way it seems to me, although I don’t have experience with kids much younger than me, is checking messages, status updates, all that just fits seamlessly into my day. The thing is, the problems that are worried about, lack of family time, spoiling children, these are the same complaints that are always raised and always will be, regardless of the technology surrounding the culture. I don’t know that this fear of being left behind is any different. Our economy runs on it, and maybe that’s a problem, but it’s a much bigger issue than parents spoiling their kids with technology. Perhaps parents are just equipping their kids with the tools they need to participate in the world?

        I think there is a problem, but it’s not the tools like cellphones or networking sites, it’s with the content and the message. Technology is an blank slate on which society inscribes its messages.

  10. I think the problem is that “talking” just isn’t cutting it. I am actually a teacher so I know all to well about theh importance of talking to youth, modelling, educating, discussing, teaching students right from wrong etc…That is my career of choice. Some adolescents respond to issues more responsibly than others, that is a given. I often bring up such topics in my classroom so the students have an open forum to air their views.
    I think the major mistake we are making as a society is giving in to kids. This has always happened to some degree, but it seems to be now at an alltime high. Why do parents feel the need to provide their adolescents with cellphones anyway? I have heard some parents say it is a “safety” issue so that their child can contact them at any time. Given…good point. We all want our children to be safe. My point being, the phones should be programed for such uses. Calling home to arrange for a drive, tell your parents where you are going or heaven forbid in some kind of emergency. I fail to see texting, (let alone sexting) fits anywhere in the mix..
    I actually own a cellphone and it DOES not have a built in camera. I realize that buying a cellphone without a camera would not prevent pictures from being taken by others, often unknown to the person in the picture, but its a start…especially in the hands of immature adolescents. For goodness sake, there are even a lot of grownups who lack the common sense to not post drunk party pictures all over social networking sites, so how can we expect children to make better judgement???
    I am only 34 years old, so I am straddling an interesting era. I grew up when technology was beginning to boom so I know all to well about its pros/cons. I am young enough to see the benefits of technology, but am old enough to realize what is/is not really necessary.
    My point being, that just because it is available, does not mean we have to make use of it, certainly not to such a ridiculous degree.
    Everywhere you go, people are tuned in or plugged in to something. It is either a cell phone, iPod, blackberry, gaming system or some other device. I have been saddened when I see families out to dinner and one kid plays on their game system, the other is on their cellphone and the other has headphones stuck in their ears. This is an example of parents who are giving in to much to their kids and not “teaching” acceptable social behaviours. THAT is where we are spiraling out of control.

  11. Every new techology is immediately used for pornography…photos, 8mm movies, VHS, DVD, now cameras in cell phones.

    I wish there were sexting when I was a teen!

    Pornography is good clean fun. Let the kids enjoy themselves.

  12. As a 17-year-old girl myself, yes I do own a cellphone WITH a built in camera and my own laptop. Lucky for me, I grew up with parents who taught me that there were consequences for every action. Everytime I was on the computer since I was 10-11 years old, my parents always supervised me and always asked about my activities. When I was entrusted with a cell phone at the age of 14, my dad caught me sending naughty text messages and I lost my cell phone priviledges for a year. Since then, I have never sent naughty text messages or shared racy photographs of myself via picture messaging or Facebook.
    What it all comes down to is the involvement of parents in their kid's life from the get-go. The earlier you teach a kid the consequences of sharing your sexuality to the entire public community and the real responsibility of owning technology, the better. That way they grow up with those morals and don't get caught up with the fad along with their friends; the kids just wouldn't see the point. Worked for me.

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